As I sat down to compose a piece for the OC Magazine, I found myself feeling pulled in many directions. I keep a running list of potential article topics on my dry erase board in my office, so that when I find the space and time to expound on one of those ideas I won’t have to go searching the crevices of my brain for inspiration. The problem is, my “writing for pleasure” (and this includes optional articles for the OC Magazine) usually falls into the Important But Not Urgent category. All too often, other aspects of my OC responsibilities are pushed to the forefront, and before I know it, those “beginnings of ideas” for articles fall off my plate again. Some of my ideas have been on the board for four years (I kid you not).
We recently had a Professional Development day at OC for the staff. I hired Susannah Sheffer (who is an author, writing mentor, and all-around writing-related guru) to come down from Massachusetts to work with the twenty-five individuals who make up our staff. As I was sitting in her workshop, what rose to the surface for me was that— like so many times before—I was paralyzed by the tyranny of a blank page. I have this belief that what I write needs to be perfect.
Something that my grief counselor said to me after my mom died really struck a chord, and I find myself coming back to it time and again, even now—more than 11 years later. She said, “Julia, you’re not perfect. No one is perfect. And, no one thinks you’re perfect.” Wham! Just like that, I was knocked off my pedestal. It was humbling, and— eventually—liberating, to come to the realization that no, I am in fact not perfect...not even close to it.
What is perfection, anyway? Following that realization, I spent a great while pondering this question, and came away with a few thoughts that I wanted to share here. Not surprisingly, I have decided to give Perfection a Balanced Response.(1)
+ Striving for perfection holds one to high standards, and can therefore produce better-quality work.
+ Seeking perfection can keep one coming back time and again to the task at hand.
+ Working towards perfection can result in a tremendous sense of internal pride and accomplishment when a project is completed and meets our self-imposed vision of what that end-result would look like.
• How to hold ourselves to excellent standards without compromising our physical and/or emotional well-being.
• How to let go of the fear of being judged for not being _________enough.
• How to recognize that one person’s definition of perfection isn’t necessarily the next person’s, and therefore it’s virtually impossible to please everyone. (Of course, hopefully most of what we are doing is not being done with the goal of pleasing others, but rather for our own fulfillment.)
It took me fifteen minutes to come up with the three pluses listed above, which further fuels my belief that, while working diligently to produce our best work or be our best selves is worthwhile, holding ourselves (and others) to “perfection” is unrealistic at best, and unhealthy at worst.
Unrealistic and unhealthy? How so? As Brene Brown (author of The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher and professor) notes, “We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it's a shield. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.”
As I mentioned, coming to the realization that I am not perfect has been exceptionally liberating. From that initial comment by my grief counselor eleven years ago to today, I have been reminded of my own imperfections on a daily basis. Nothing is more humbling than parenting. Throw in the added complexity (albeit joyful opportunity, as well) of overseeing our offspring’s educational journeys, and it is no wonder that parents who are focusing on perfection can become burnt out.
Many families seek out Open Connections, and this type of educational journey, in an effort to escape the fast-paced, high stakes, cutthroat competition that is often prevalent in today’s public and private schools. And while removing oneself from the (school) system may give you great gains in the direction of a more nurturing, slower-paced lifestyle, it certainly does not guarantee it.
Given my role within the OC community, I have the opportunity to meet individually with OC families to support them on their educational journey. Through these meetings, parents often remark on their own quests for perfection and share that they frequently feel like they are falling short of their (self-imposed) ideals.
Of course it’s natural, and dare I say healthy, to question the status quo and to work towards bettering ourselves. In short, what we refer to at OC as process improvements. This is the “striving to be our best” that Brene Brown refers to.
However, far too often the goal shifts from simply striving to improve to a desire to be perfect. This is when I see families struggling the most on their Partnership Education journeys: when they let the Perfection Demon rear its ugly head and self-doubt starts to creep in. They start comparing their six-year-old’s reading abilities to those of their same-aged public-schooled nephew. Or they feel intimidated by another OC family who seems to “have it all together.” This unhealthy focus on comparison and lack of self-compassion isn’t healthy or fun, and in the long run it doesn’t support positive change for anyone.
Don’t get me wrong; I have been guilty of making these kinds of self-flagellating comparisons myself, both in my personal and professional life. But, what I have learned from my own direct experiences (and from the countless experiences of the hundreds of families I have worked with over the years) is that far too much weight is often placed on a single decision, experience or outcome. What, in the moment, feels momentous, often turns out to be relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things.
Alex Lickerman, M.D., a guest columnist for Psychology Today, eloquently speaks to this notion. He writes:
What helps to release me from the compulsion to create perfection, I've found, is striving to put into proper perspective the importance of the act of creation itself. When I'm immersed in the creative process, nothing feels more important to me at that moment than the thing which I'm creating. And though that sense of importance is what drives my passion and discipline (which in turn is what makes creating it possible at all), it also represents the source of the painful sense of urgency for the final result to be perfect. Forcing myself, then, to recognize that in the grand scheme of life no one thing is so important to me or anyone else that failing to make it perfect will permanently impair my ability to be happy is what frees me from the need for it to be perfect. Freed then from the need to attain the unattainable, I can instead focus on enjoying the challenge of simply doing my best. Because if we allow ourselves to remain at the mercy of our desire for perfection, not only will the perfect elude us, so will the good.
It is my sincere desire that each of us frees ourselves from the Perfection Demon, and that we can joyfully embrace the world of “good enough.” Imagine how liberating it will feel when you can tackle that home improvement project that has been hanging over your head, and you can happily accept the “good enough” outcome.
Next, imagine more broadly how freeing it would feel to trust yourself, love yourself unconditionally, and deliberately bask in the glow of feeling content with who you are, and with the decisions you make.
I invite you to break down your own perfectionism barriers, whatever or wherever they may be, and fully embrace life in all of its not-so-perfect glory. Come join me in the land of Good Enough. It’s a heck of a lot more pleasurable and nourishing than the stress-inducing (and unattainable) world of perfectionism.
(1) Balanced Response is a key part of the OC philosophy. In evaluating an idea, you first offer at least 3 “pluses” and then phrase “negatives” as “How-tos” to keep the conversation active and look for possible solutions. Balanced Response and other OC terms and ideas are further discussed in the OC Glossary of Terms which can be found in the OC Parent Resource Library.